Volta Invents the Battery Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Volta, striving to improve on previous experiments with electricity, designed a battery that used positive and negative poles to charge a wire placed in a wet cell. He refined his battery design three times before 1800, when he is officially credited with inventing the battery.

Summary of Event

As early as 1600, scientists experimented with ideas of electrical attraction and electrical conductivity Electrical conductivity in an effort to design a device or machine to capture electricity. Electricity Early studies recognized static electricity and current electricity produced by the chemical interaction of positive and negative electrons across a wire. In 1600, Otto von Guericke Guericke, Otto von designed a machine that produced electric sparks, and in England, Francis Hauksbee Hauksbee, Francis used static electricity to produce sparks, to the delight of party guests. [kw]Volta Invents the Battery (1800) [kw]Invents the Battery, Volta (1800) [kw]Battery, Volta Invents the (1800) Batteries Electricity;storage of [g]Italy;1800: Volta Invents the Battery[3420] [c]Inventions;1800: Volta Invents the Battery[3420] [c]Engineering;1800: Volta Invents the Battery[3420] [c]Science and technology;1800: Volta Invents the Battery[3420] Volta, Alessandro Galvani, Luigi Nicholson, William Banks, Sir Joseph

In 1752, Benjamin Franklin’s Franklin, Benjamin [p]Franklin, Benjamin;electricty discovery of the electrical nature of lightning Electricity;and lightning[lightning] Lightning;as electricity[electricity] brought together roughly 150 years of hypothesizing, experimentation, and invention in the application of electricity to scientific studies. Franklin analyzed electrical charges Electrical charges as positive and negative, and he realized that more could be learned about electricity than had been previously known through Ewald Georg von Kleist’s Leyden jar, Leyden jar which housed electricity in a glass bottle partially filled with water. The Leyden jar was the first example of a device now called a capacitor, Capacitors a means of storing electricity. The next major advance in the storage of this type of energy would be made by Alessandro Volta.

Volta showed a lifelong interest in electricity, publishing first a poem on Joseph Priestley’s Priestley, Joseph scientific career and his first work on electricity in 1771, at the age of twenty-six. His first invention was a variation on the Leyden jar that used wood instead of water to conduct an electrical charge. In 1775, Volta invented the electrophorus, Electrophorus which used resin to line two metal plates that conducted sparks sufficient to make static electricity. On June 10, 1775, Volta wrote to Joseph Priestley describing his electrophorus.

In 1776, Volta discovered the composition of methane gas and learned of its combustibility when he invented an electrical pistol that shot sparks. This led him to consider how the sparks flying on a wire could be used for signals, a line of thought that predated the telegraph. In 1778, Volta was named to the physics chair at the University of Pavia. As he pursued his scientific studies, he remained connected to British scientists through the efforts of his English-language translator, Tiberius Cavallo, who prepared Volta’s essay “On the Method of Rendering Very Sensible the Weakest Natural or Artificial Electricty” for the prestigious Transactions of the Royal Society, of which Sir Joseph Banks was president. This essay described the improvements Volta had made to the electrophorus so the new machine could retain or store electricity in greater strength.

In 1793, after carefully studying the experiments of Luigi Galvani, who was calling his work “animal electricity” Electricity;and nervous system[nervous system] as he charged the nervous systems of animals including the frog, Volta developed his own idea of “metallic electricity,” which he discussed in another essay published in England, “Account of Some Discoveries Made by Mr. Galvani, with Experiments and Observations of Them.” Here, Volta reported on his use of metals and carbons and how he conducted electricity using his own moistened tongue. He argued that the metal plates combined with the wet surface electrified the tongue externally and did not, as Galvani believed, stimulate his nerves or his tongue muscle. He asserted that he felt the charge because it was applied to the tongue; it was not generated from inside his body.

Thus, Volta began a series of experiments from 1794 to 1797 during which he tested a variety of metals, learning how positive and negative charges were conducted. By the middle of 1797, he had displaced Galvani’s ideas, as well as those of William Nicholson, who in 1788 had invented a device called the “doubler” that he used to conduct and store electricity. Eventually, Volta settled on the design of the first battery for which he is famous: two metal plates (electrodes) Electrodes vertically set in a liquid solution (electrolyte; acid is used today). The electrolyte Electrolytes conducted electricity between the two electrodes, allowing one to become positively charged and one to become negatively charged. The portion of the electrodes protruding from the electrolyte could be placed in contact with a conductive substance such as a wire, either to charge the electrolytic solution or to discharge the electrical energy stored within the solution.

A sketch by Alessandro Volta of his battery, published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 1800.

(Library of Congress)

Once Volta was satisfied with the initial results that conducted and achieved a sustainable charge, he shared them in a letter to Sir Joseph Banks, who in turn presented Volta’s descriptions to the other scientists in the Royal Society. The first part of Volta’s letter to Banks was published in April, 1800; the second part was published in early June, 1800. His ideas were not patented, and it was part of the climate of the times for others to imitate and test and retest new ideas, so Volta soon learned that complementary experiments were conducted by scientists in London, Paris, and Vienna. Chief among these scientists was Nicholson, who began to test the idea of the Voltaic “pile” Voltaic pile (the cell that housed the electricity) in salt water, using silver coins to try to conduct electricity. Other scientists continued to support Galvani’s idea of “animal electricity,” the notion that current was housed in the nerves of a mammal. Still others tried to show that the function of electric conductivity could be fulfilled with substances other than water. In 1801, a Danish scientist, Hans Christian rsted, rsted, Hans Christian suggested there was more than one type of current electricity, an extension of Volta’s studies.

In September, 1801, Volta went to Paris to promote another version of his battery, which carried a more forceful charge. He was received by Napoleon Bonaparte, who recognized his efforts with a six-thousand-franc stipend. Back in Como, Volta again reworked the battery to improve its charging power. It was not until 1803 that he patented the design of the electric battery, and it is interesting to note the high degree of integrity within the scientific community, as no one else tried to claim Volta’s innovative design or discovery as his own.

Significance

Volta harnessed electricity when he provided a way of producing a continuous electric current. Though he was solving a scientific problem that aroused his curiosity, he left the world with a lasting and major improvement in technology that is widely used in commerce, industry, and households. However, the immediate impact of his invention was to pave the way for the discoveries and applications of electricity and its properties that exploded during the ninteenth century.

Volta’s studies would influence Michael Faraday, Faraday, Michael the English scientist who in the 1810’s carried out his research in electrochemistry and electromagnetism. In Paris, in 1801-1802, André-Marie Ampère Ampère, André-Marie attended Volta’s public lectures on the differences between his theories and those of Galvani. Ampère in the 1820’s developed the theories surrounding electrical currents. In 1810, Sir Humphry Davy Davy, Sir Humphry was indebted to Volta as he experimented with the electrical arc, which led to an early version of the electric light bulb.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dibner, Bern. Alessandro Volta and the Electric Battery. New York: Franklin Watts, 1964. Provides a clear and readable account of Volta’s career.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hamilton, James. A Life of Discovery: Michael Faraday, Giant of the Scientific Revolution. New York: Random House, 2002. Mentions Faraday’s meeting with Volta in 1814 and quotes from Faraday’s travel diaries as he accompanied Sir Humphry Davies in Europe.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Holton, Gerald. Thematic Origins of Scientific Thought: Kepler to Einstein. Rev. ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988. Holton notes that prior to the twentieth century, scientists tried to balance or reconcile various theories, as was the case with Galvani and Volta, while current scientists entertain many theories and do not question their complementarity or lack thereof.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McKenzie, A. E. E. The Major Achievements of Science: The Development of Science from Ancient Times to the Present. Cambridge, Mass.: Cambridge University Press, 1960. Devotes a chapter to eighteenth century scientific discoveries and to “field physics,” discussing Volta’s influence on nineteenth century discoveries.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pancaldi, Guiliano. Volta. Science and Culture in the Age of Enlightenment. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2003. A biographical and critical study of Volta and his times, presenting his discoveries in the context of the eighteenth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rosen, Dennis, and Sylvia Rosen. London Science: Museums, Libraries, and Places of Scientific, Technological, and Medical Interest. London: Prion Books, 1994. Discusses the contributions of Sir Joseph Banks and Michael Faraday in particular, mentioning Volta and Faraday’s meeting. The book gives an appreciation for the history of science in London culture, especially since it notes the various statutes, memorials, and burial places of prominent London scientists who were influenced by Volta.

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